Humor and Harm
Goldstein (Laurence)
Source: Sorites 3, November 1995: 27-42
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

    For familiar reasons, stereotyping is believed to be irresponsible and offensive. Yet the use of stereotypes in humor is widespread. Particularly offensive are thought to be sexual and racial stereotypes, yet it is just these that figure particularly prominently in jokes. In certain circumstances it is unquestionably wrong to make jokes that employ such stereotypes. Some writers have made the much stronger claim that in all circumstances it is wrong to find such jokes funny; in other words that people who laugh at such jokes betray sexist/racist attitudes. This conclusion seems false. There is, as I shall argue, a thin dividing line between being properly sensitive to the rights and feelings of women and of racial groups different from our own, and being excessively sensitive to oversensitivity. Oversensitivity is, in this context, a kind of intolerance, and there is no reason why we should pander to that. One can be opposed to the unchecked dissemination of certain kinds of racist or sexist humor without oneself being a racist or sexist for finding such humor funny. The use of various stereotypes in humor serves the linguistic purpose of facilitating brevity and punch, the cultural purpose of preserving, in a sanitized form traditional rivalries and antipathies, and the psychological purpose of discharging fears. Blanket moral condemnation is inappropriate, though there will, of course, be circumstances under which the promulgation of certain types of humor, or even its enjoyment, ought to be condemned.


Filed electronically with the full edition of Sorites 03

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